Is Great Falls business friendly? Does the City encourage growth? Why are these never-ending questions? Perhaps the answers are obvious after all.
The Great Falls City Commission recently voted unanimously to deny a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) to locally owned and operated M&D Construction. City staff, the City Zoning Commission and Neighborhood Council 7 all voted unanimously IN FAVOR of the CUP. M&D Construction employs about 30 people here in Great Falls. The CUP would allow them to continue operations at their current level.
It’s getting harder and harder for me to believe that Great Falls is pro-jobs and that it isn’t controlled by a Good Ol’ Boys (and Gals) Club after watching our city commissioners at “work” at the January 2nd, 2018 Great Falls City Commission meeting. (Click here for full audio/video and documents referenced in this article.)
And while, yes, I have been critical of the City over the years for this very reason, I nevertheless feel that Greg Doyon and Craig Raymond in particular do generally try to adopt a flexible, pro-growth tenor at the staff level. It’s the politicians who can’t get it right!
The commission was considering whether or not to grant a Conditional Use Permit for a Contractor Yard Type II for the local construction company, M&D Construction. The company is located at 611 8th Avenue North and 817 7th Street North.
Here’s some background as explained by City of Great Falls Planning and Community Development Director Craig Raymond:
“M&D Construction has been operating at the property for several years. Over the years, however, the use of the property has changed and expanded. Earlier this year, the City received a complaint about the activity from a resident located in the neighborhood to the south. Although the property had traditionally been used for the construction businesses for many years, it is the expansion of that use that requires a formal review and approval of a Conditional Use Permit.”
The CUP would have been conditioned on several improvements being made to the property – fencing, a berm etc., which the owner, Rhett Hulett, was happy to comply with.
According to Craig Raymond, here’s what would happen if the CUP was denied by our five-member City Commission:
“The use as it exists today…if the Conditional Use Permit is denied, could not stay there. They would either have to move to another location or it would have to be scaled back to a point where it would be more in keeping with the prior use which has been there for many years, because prior to them, I believe it was Lord’s Construction and some others, and it was legally established as a legal nonconforming use after the zone change in 2005. So either they need to move or they need to considerably scale it back to be in keeping with the prior legal nonconforming use.”
The City Planning Department staff recommended the CUP be granted and had been working closely with M&D owners and management to help them with improvements, such as fencing and a berm to mitigate some aesthetic problems related to a construction yard.
The Great Falls Planning Advisory Board/Zoning Commission voted unanimously to recommend approval of the CUP after hearing public comment.
Each of these staff/citizen groups worked hard and made studied, well thought out, expert-consulted recommendations to approve the CUP and possibly prevent up to 30 jobs from being forced from the core of our city.
So you would think that our City Commission would approve the permit based on those recommendations and the common sense notion that we should be encouraging and trying to retain businesses that pay the taxes which provide city services, hire folks, contribute to the local economy, and work to be good neighbors. Right?
The Great Falls City Commission – Bob Kelly, Bill Bronson, Tracy Houck, Owen Robinson and Mary Moe – voted unanimously to DENY the Conditional Use Permit which will probably cause M&D Construction to have to move or scale back their business significantly.
In case you’re not familiar with how the commission has typically operated in situations pertaining to land use and zoning etc. here’s a brief explanation: the City Commission almost always follows the recommendations of city staff, especially when those recommendations are backed up by a citizens advisory board and the local Neighborhood Council, as was the case here. They have very, very, very rarely ever deviated from that MO.
So what’s so different in the M&D Construction case? Let’s just be real honest here – this isn’t about traffic concerns, conforming with a growth policy, ingresses or egresses, blah blah blah.
Of the five citizens who attended and spoke in opposition to the approval of the CUP for M&D Construction at the January 2nd City Commission meeting, three were members of the wealthy and very influential Blewett family: Zander Blewett, Andy Blewett and Anders Blewett, all residents of the lower northside neighborhood in the vicinity of M&D Construction.
Zander Blewett: “…this is a massive change. I’m in great opposition to this.”
Anders Blewett: “As someone who lives in that area, I would rather see it be that regardless of whether there’s a berm. This is part of the core of the city…I would prefer that there not be heavy machinery in the core of our city… I think the policy of the City and I think the trend of urban areas in general is to move industrial areas out of the core of the city, push them out…”
Andy Blewett: “I can’t imagine just a berm is going to suffice for blocking out all the trucks and vehicles…I think anytime you have something that brings down a neighborhood rather than brings it up, especially the historic Great Falls deal…”
This is very simple in my opinion – the Blewetts said “jump” and the Commissioners asked “how high?” on the way up.
But let me be very clear, this isn’t about the Blewett family. They have been and continue to be outstanding members of our community who have very generously contributed both time and money to many wonderful and worthy causes in this city and state. As citizens, they have every right to use whatever wealth or influence they have to try to affect the kind of outcomes they deem appropriate or beneficial.
No, this is about whether our city commissioners are going to kowtow to the agenda of their pals from the wealthy, old money Great Falls elite or do what’s best for business and every-day workers who plug away trying to make ends meet in the struggling-to-remain-stagnant Great Falls economy.
So let’s look at the money donated to the political campaigns of the city commissioners who elected to side with the Blewetts’ position to deny the CUP rather than take the expert advice of city staff and the Zoning Commission, as well as the citizens of Neighborhood Council 7, to accommodate a local business so it can stay in business.
Blewett contributions to Mary Moe, 2017
Blewett , Alexander III Attorney HOYT & BLEWETT Primary $330.00
Blewett , Alexander IV Attorney HOYT & BLEWETT Primary $330.00
Blewett, Andrea Primary $330.00
Blewett, Andrew Attorney HOYT & BLEWETT Primary $330.00
Total = $1320.00
Blewett contributions to Bob Kelly, 2015
Blewett, Alexander Attorney Hoyt & Blewett Primary $170.00
Blewett, Andrew Attorney HOYT & BLEWETT Primary $170.00
Blewett III, Alexander Attorney Hoyt & Blewett General $170.00
Total = $510.00
Blewett contributions to Bill Bronson, 2015
Blewett, Alexander (Anders) $50.00
Total = $50.00
Total Blewett campaign contributions to current city commissioners = $1,880.00
Total Rhett Hulett (owner of M&D Constructiton) contributions to current city commissioners = $0.00
All of these contribution figures can be found on the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices campaign report search page.
The ‘Not In My Back Yard’ argument is also obviously in play in this decision and seems especially potent given that the ‘backyard’ in question belongs to a lot of wealthy, influential local movers and shakers, including Mayor Kelly himself.
I don’t know if there may also be other considerations in the mix, like some other interests wanting M&D Construction to be forced to move and make that property available to someone else for some other purpose, but that’s a legitimate possibility. Either way, ask yourself who benefitted from the Commission’s decision. Were our city commissioners representing the interests of a select few, or were they representing all of us?
Given the circumstances, background, and the rare instance of the Commission going against staff, the Zoning Commission and citizens council, I find the reasons for denying the CUP given by our City Commissioners weak and unconvincing, more like excuses than reasons:
Bronson – (“And not to disagree with my good friend Mr. Blewett…”)
“I don’t believe that granting this Conditional Use Permit is really consistent with the City’s growth policy.”
But that’s not what the experts who do this kind of analysis for a living say. Our city staff, who looked very closely at the issue over a period of time came to the exact opposite conclusion in their basis of decision for approval of the Conditional Use Permit:
“The zoning and conditional use is consistent with the City’s Growth Policy and applicable neighborhood plans, if any.”
In fact, each and every one of Mr. Bronson’s points in his basis for denial of the permit are all directly and pointedly contradicted by city staffs findings in its basis of decision. Bronson’s conclusions are long on historical anecdote and his own opinion and very, very short on substantive reasoning.
“I watched the hearing of the Zoning and Planning Commission. I read the record of the Neighborhood Council. I have some frustration that this proposal advanced through both of those bodies with I believe a unanimous endorsement and that it is at this level that we find these concerns. And I apologize to the people that have worked so hard to move it forward. I share the concerns that Commissioner Bronson has outlined, though…”
“…So had I made the motion, I would have wanted to ask that you go back to the Zoning and Planning Commission and find a more palatable solution. But I’m not sure that there is one, and that the same thing wouldn’t happen.”
I’m not sure what point Ms. Moe is making regarding her “frustration” with NHC7 and the Planning/Zoning Commission. Is it that she thinks they should have made her job easier and less controversial by voting to not recommend the CUP?
And for Moe, is this what leadership looks like? Isn’t leadership collecting facts, and then rendering a decision impartially based upon evidence? Or is leadership publicly throwing an unpaid board of volunteers under the bus because you didn’t want to deal with the inconvenience of taking a public position?
Sometimes politically “palatable solutions” just aren’t available and you have to suck it up and do the right thing regardless of how much you want to send it “back to the Zoning and Planning Commission”.
Robinson – (“…just to talk back at my friend Zander Blewett”)
“Saying all that, I’m afraid with the growth that’s going to go on in Great Falls and the success of your company, Mr. Hulett, you’re going to outgrow that anyway. I really believe that.
And I also believe that there’s a better use for that area. I would really like one day to see somebody look at seeing putting a round-about there to take care of that traffic problem, which could not be done if we approve the variation to the zoning now.”
So Robinson’s vote to deny a permit for M&D is partially based on “the growth that’s going to go on in Great Falls”? Where is all this growth going to come from if the City Commission makes the kind of decisions Robinson made here, decisions which are antithetical to growth?
Furthermore Robinson’s remark, “…Mr. Hulett, you’re going to outgrow that anyway,” is not only presumptuous and cavalier, it completely disregards Mr. Hulett’s unambiguous statement during the commission meeting: “And the growth – we’re at our max, like I said at the Zoning meeting, it’s about all my hair and heart can handle with the 30 employees we have now.”
I wonder how Robinson would have responded if, after he had been handed responsibility for his family business, some politician on the City Commission told him he should just move the Lumber Yard Supply operations current location because they were just going to “outgrow that anyway”?
“So how long would they have a chance to move? What happens if they just up and pull out of there?
We’re still as a community left with a façade basically to our parks and to our residential area that we’re not perhaps appreciative. And yet there is a proposal on the table that says if you allow us to do this, we will clean up your community façade. So I just want to hear a little bit more about what those other affects are…
… one more goofy question. Is there a way to send it back so there’s an opportunity to reach a compromise or are we too late in the game for that?”
What? One is left wondering if Houck understands anything about what’s going on here or what’s at stake. “We’re still as a community left with a façade basically to our parks and to our residential area that we’re not perhaps appreciative…” What does that even mean?
It sounds like Houck is more concerned about how to “clean up your community façade” (???) once that pesky construction thingy with 30 jobs is pushed out of there. I could be wrong though, because her comments are incomprehensible nonsense, so who knows what in the world she’s talking about.
Kelly – (…as Mr. Blewett had said earlier here)
“As everybody else has said here, this is not a statement on business or owners, etc. It is about best and highest uses, as Mr. Blewett had said earlier here. In a sense, we can be shooting ourself in the foot. We have an opportunity to put lipstick on this thing. If we don’t allow that to happen then there’d be no need for the owner to make any changes there and you can just have an incredibly unappealing lot there which is what it is.
I share the concerns about traffic. I live in that neighborhood, and the amount of heavy traffic that is coming down to go into those smaller access points is not only in my opinion dangerous, but it is also incredibly unappealing for people who come down to the park to enjoy it there as well.”
“This is not a statement on business or owners…”? How absurd. Of course it is. It’s a crystal clear statement, Mr. Mayor, and I’m quite sure it has been and is being heard loudly and clearly by the local business community and others who may want to locate or expand in Great Falls.
I’m sorry that a business employing 30 people is so “incredibly unappealing” to you and your close neighbors the Blewetts, Bob. God forbid that you should have to look at something that needs “lipstick” and is “dangerous” in the neighborhood YOU live in.
Moreover, does anyone actually buy Kelly’s ludicrous argument about “dangerous” traffic? Really? Do you think Kelly even believes it?
I don’t know what Rhett Hulett, owner of M&D Construction, is going to do now. I spoke to Rhett briefly the other day and he’s weighing his options. He could appeal the Commission’s decision to a local court if he wanted to, but given the array of lawyers lined up against him, I’m not sure that’s going to work. If I were him, I would seriously consider moving my company elsewhere.
The best solution here would be for the City Commission to come to its senses, reconsider the matter, and grant the Conditional Use Permit so M&D can continue providing paychecks, paying taxes and contributing to the local economy. But I doubt that will happen. Rather, I know it won’t.
Kelly, Bronson, Houck, Moe and Robinson have shown their true colors here. Despite all the campaign lip service about wanting to see our town grow, being “positive” and wanting millennials to stay here, our City Commission has demonstrated that cronyism, NIMBYism and an ongoing NO-GROWTH POLICY is alive and well in Great Falls.